I Used a 'Human Uber' Surrogate to Do My Job for Me

And it was terrible.

Brian McManus

Brian McManus

All photos by Peter Marquez except where noted

I'm working from home while a man wearing a motorcycle helmet and an iPad strapped to his face goes into the office as my surrogate. Through FaceTime, my head is displayed on the screen, allowing me to see and interact with my co-workers all while commanding a body that does not belong to me.

This sneak peek of the future was inspired by a product unveiled at MIT Tech Review’s EmTech Asia conference, held a couple of weeks ago in Singapore. It was there that the ChameleonMask, described by its website simply as a “telepresence system that shows a remote user’s face on the other user’s face,” had its debut. Shortly after, tweets containing photos of people wearing the device’s prototype began to hit social media, where it was dubbed “Human Uber."

The iPad over the face of the Human Uber that I've sent into work today as my surrogate is our broke-ass DIY attempt at ChameleonMask, and visually speaking, it’s pretty spot on. ChameleonMask, after all, is basically just an iPad over a face, by any means necessary. The only flaw in our version's design is that it is nearly impossible for the surrogate to see, what with his face stuffed behind a computer and all.

The first task I give my Human Uber is to simply open a Google Doc on my computer. Eager to please, he dutifully follows my direction, but I'm having trouble seeing the screen. I ask him to get closer to the computer, and he zeroes in on a stack of books on my desk instead. I give instructions to him loudly through the iPad speakers. His hearing muffled by the helmet, he replies louder still.

“No, no. A bit more to the right!” I command.

“Here?” he shouts back.

“A litttttle more,” I answer.


After the first hour, all I’ve done is walk him through turning on my computer and logging into all the accounts I need to do my job (email, Slack, Chartbeat, VICE’s CMS, Twitter), a process that usually takes a few short minutes. Just finding this doc today took nearly half an hour.

Through the iPad and a slight turn of my surrogate’s head I see that nearly everyone within earshot has decamped to another part of the office, unwilling or unable to sit through what amounts to the world’s oddest conference call. The few who remain have their phones drawn and are taking my photo. Or, rather, my surrogate’s photo. I am just a face on an iPad strapped to a helmet, alone at home, talking loudly and annoyingly at the blind man I’ve sent to do my bidding.

This is the future, and it is a giant pain in the ass.

The idea behind a Human Uber isn’t a bad one. Send someone as your proxy to do things you don’t want to or simply don’t have time for? Sure! But the execution?

ChameleonMask was brought into this world by Jun Rekimoto, a professor of information studies at the University of Tokyo and the deputy director of Sony Computer Science Laboratories. His research includes “human-computer interaction, computer augmented environments, and computer augmented human (human-computer integration),” according to his EmTech bio.

This is what it looks like when the theory of "human-computer integration" becomes reality:

Reached over email, Rekimoto tells me about some of the things his invention can be used for, and why it’s worthwhile: “remote presentation / giving a lecture at a classroom, remote participation at a conference (especially for asking questions for presenters), remote doctor's hospital rounds, training,” he lists coldly.

Of course, all of these can be done with tele- or video- conference systems that have been around for some time—FaceTime, Skype, Bluejeans. None require a physical human stand-in for the remote user, much less a helmet or the use of electrical tape like our creation. The Human Uber, it seems, is just a new twist on old tech, and not especially practical, as I come to learn almost instantly during my workday. It occupies some weird middle ground, a step above FaceTime or telepresence robots on their own, but far below what you might envision a digital proxy might look like in the not-too-distant future—stuck between a new dawn just over the horizon and the present, not quite an HD hologram realistic enough to fool someone after a couple of drinks, but arguably better than one of these dumb things. Still, the fact remains this stuff already exists in different forms. Why add the human?

“A typical telepresence robot available today uses wheels for walking around, but it's function is still limited,” Rekimoto writes via email when I ask this very question. “It can't manipulate a doorknob to open the door. It can't climb the stairs. More sophisticated humanoid-robots might be able to deal with such situations, but [are] much more expensive. So we came up with the idea of human-surrogate.”

Robots also can’t make lunch. And after having done my best to edit a story and some other workday morning routines through my Human Uber, it is time to do just that. My surrogate has packed his, and uses the Munchies test kitchen to prepare it.

He makes a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on bread he’s toasted in a high-powered salamander oven. But considering he can’t really see, this is all very dangerous. Everyone in his orbit gets sucked into the process. Our photographer hands him a spatula. A kitchen manager makes sure the gas is turned on medium. Through FaceTime, I count at least three people nervously hovering around my Human Uber to make sure he doesn't injure himself. This high-tech human surrogate thing takes a village.

Having survived the flames and sharp edges of a professional kitchen, my Human Uber eats. After a few bites, convinced no one needs me, I allow him to take off his iPad helmet to enjoy his food in relative peace. A benevolent God, am I.

After lunch I meet with VICE junior staff writer Drew Schwartz about a story he’s working on for me. We take a couple seats in the lobby and begin chatting about where he’s at in his reporting, the shape he thinks it will take, some new details learned, and a couple deadline concerns. It’s the first time of the day I feel I’m using my Human Uber for a task it is actually equipped for.

Drew sits next to me at work, so he sat next to my Human Uber, too, and was forced to help him out throughout the day. When my blind surrogate bumped into things, he frequently stepped in to be his seeing eye human. He guided him down stairs and around plants and poles. He opened drawers for him. He pressed "power" on my computer for him. My Human Uber couldn’t have gotten through the day without his gracious guidance.

After our talk, Drew leads my Human Uber down to a supply closet in shipping and receiving so he can grab some pens and a notepad I've asked him to get. Along the way, co-workers stop and take photos, sometimes crowding my path like paparazzi. I’ve walked to the mail room/supply closet dozens of times, but this is a first.

ChameleonMask suggests, for realism's sake, that the person you choose to be your Human Uber have a similar body type as you, and mine definitely does. We are similar in many ways, actually. Because my Human Uber is my twin brother, Sean, and after his rigorous morning blindly fumbling through basic tasks and having his picture taken countless times by people he doesn't know and will never meet, I begin to worry he’ll be angry with me for convincing him to do this once it's all over. After getting my supplies, we break for a while, and I call to check in with him, ask how things are going on his end—something I hope I'd consider even if my Human Uber and I hadn't once shared a womb. He tells me it’s a weird mix of humiliating and exhilarating, that throughout the day he’s felt both “small” but also constantly “under the spotlight”—helpless in the face of basic tasks, the incompetence born of his being suddenly without sight is on full display. "It's kind of a 'Dance, monkey!' feeling," he says.

As a result, I start to wonder about the ethics of the whole Human Uber endeavor. Say this ChameleonMask thing catches on, and we’re sending people out into the world to handle our tasks while we beam ourselves to a tablet on their face. It creates an instant divide, the surrogates and those using them. Additionally, my brother tells me that being cloaked in the semi-dark behind a tablet and in a helmet that, he confides, is a size too small for hours on end is, surprisingly, very trying. At points during the day, when I'm not bossing him around, he says he is moved to close his eyes and meditate “to power through it." Is that not wrong? Human Ubers are humans, after all. Then again, everyone's job is a test in endurance sometimes.

James McGrath teaches philosophy and ethics as a professor at Butler University, and is currently researching AI and ethics. He sees no ethical dilemma when it comes to the use of a Human Uber, provided you pay fairly for their time. In fact, he thinks the itch scratched by ChameleonMask is a pretty common one, and understands why a human surrogate may be preferred over a simple video-conferencing robot. “The truth is that we hire people to represent us very often—lawyers advocate for us, movers lift boxes and transport cargo for us,” he says in an email.

"If I cannot travel to Britain to guest teach a class, I can Skype," he continues. "If I cannot attend a conference, I can ask someone else who will be there to read the paper on my behalf. Why not merge the two, so that someone could be hired to mediate and supplement my video-conferenced guest appearance by also writing on the board and looking around at the audience?"

“At this moment, it is still a research prototype, and we just tested it for experiments,” Rekimoto tells me in regards to the ethics of the product. He concedes that it would be an issue if the ChameleonMask grew in popularity to such a degree that people were forced into becoming surrogates.

“On the other hand,” Rekimoto writes in an email, “the feeling of being a surrogate is actually very interesting. You will become free from your free will (= no responsibility), and you can constantly feel you are helping other persons.”

This, my twin assures me, doesn’t gel with his experience. Because he couldn’t see and required so much help, the opposite turned out to be true—an office full of people helped him on a near-constant basis. I also happen to believe he was able to maintain free will, and wouldn't have acted on anything out of the bounds of decency or the law simply because I, his boss for the day, suggested it.

Regarding vision—I ask Rekimoto to describe how it is a surrogate sees out of ChameleonMask. He sends a photo diagram.

“Shown in the picture, we put the smartphone behind the iPad tablet," he writes. "Image from the camera mounted on the smartphone provides a view of the real world to the surrogate user. This image is also transmitted and displayed on a screen in front of the remote user.” This is done, a short, not-at-all-conclusive video on the ChameleonMask site explains, through something called "Hacosco." But neither it nor Rekimoto's answer can convince me it isn't as disorienting as barely being able to see. Essentially, you watch live video of your surroundings on a phone a few inches in front of your eyes while a "director" (user) offers navigation help through a separate audio channel. Sounds easy!

I can’t help thinking the whole sight hurdle could be easily cleared if the iPad were someplace else. Hang it from a necklace or something, ya know? It turns out, that’s actually not too far off from the original concept of ChameleonMask. Rekimoto tells me that initially they’d been developing a shoulder-mounted telepresence module. “I think the shoulder-mounted approach is more practical,” he says. But over the face "is more thought-provoking.”

“Even when I know another person is behind the mask, I tend to regard and directly speak to a person on a mask screen,” he says. “I realized that with this simple configuration, it is able to create human-presence.”

My Human Uber/twin brother comes back from a coffee break just in time to “create human-presence” at our editorial meeting.

The meeting lasts about an hour, as it typically does. In addition to general housekeeping and updates, staffers around the table are asked to pitch Olympic-themed stories.

I strain to listen to the ideas of my colleagues, but only manage to catch mention of the word "curling" a couple times and the phrase "that weird sport where you ski and shoot a gun." I pitch a couple of my own ideas, after asking for forgiveness in the possible event any of them are repeats. No one looks at me while I speak.

Photo via the author

The meeting wraps up, and I hear maybe 15 percent of it. To catch up, some co-workers suggest we head to a nearby bar to recap the day.

At the bar, there are more stares and pictures. Among the many things I've learned over the course of this long day, chief among them is this: if you don't like being paid a ton of attention to, the Human Uber experience likely isn't for you. That is true of users on both sides of the equation.

Or maybe give it a few years. Human Uber is a combination of two things that we already consider normal, even mundane, says McGrath—hiring people to do physical activities for us, and communicating with others despite the fact that we are not physically present. Human Uber, then, is just a natural extension of this. “There is nothing ridiculous about combining the two,” McGrath says. "It is the sort of thing which might one day seem ordinary rather than odd.”

In other words, better get used to this, brother.

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